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The Fifth Wall

The author (c.) with cast members. This Polaroid was smuggled out of prison by...but that would be snitching.


“What are you going to do with the boys?” asked the deputy governor of the Northern Ireland Prison Service. “What’s the workshop about? What do we tell them?”

“Try acting for a change,” I suggested.

I was on sabbatical as a professor of acting at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. Along with researching a new solo performance piece at Queens University Belfast, I joined Pamela Brown’s creative writing class at HMP Magilligan Prison north of Londonderry. I’d volunteered to introduce characterization techniques at two of the facilities supported by the Prison Arts Foundation in Northern Ireland.

My own practice in prisons had begun in the States. Inspired by Curt Tofteland’s Shakespeare Behind Bars program, I contacted Katherine Vockins at Rehabilitation Through the Arts in New York. Katherine introduced me to other prison practitioners, then I went to the source—a production of Our Town at Sing Sing. I spoke with one of the parolees. “What do you need me to do? How do you feel about volunteers stepping into your world?” “Take the mask off,” he told me. “We can see an agenda a mile away. We’re looking for tools, real ways to handle real life.”

Once fingerprinted and certified by New York’s Department of Corrections, I began by coaching the guys at Woodbourne Correctional Facility. Sharing personal stories from the cell block as monologues and improvisations introduced the men to acting techniques. August Wilson, John Steinbeck, Keith Glover, Charles Fuller, James McClure, and Samuel Beckett gave them new scenes to try on for size. I’ve always been aware of the changes that can occur as a result of assuming a character.

But now, the inmates at Magilligan in Northern Ireland were looking at me like I was from another planet as we sized each other up. The men were older here and more seriously focused on improving life skills. They knew they’d be expected to tell a personal story and so they came rehearsed…too rehearsed, because they were reading their stories like an assignment. When I took away their paper and asked them to tell it again from memory, “to your son in order to help him, or to your wife while you’re having a drink, or as you interview for a new job as a way of breaking the ice,” they brought new life, immediacy, emotion, and reality. They were learning one of the secrets of acting.

I’ve often found that after introducing my students to great plays and playwrights, the characters do the rest. Saying someone else’s words has a profound effect on behavior and thought. Our mind interprets them and makes them ours, while our heart feels them and they change us. When an actor says the words and searches for the reasons why, it’s like magic: a different self begins to emerge. At Woodbourne, I introduced an inmate — a tall, muscular, gregarious and fearless individual who had served almost twenty years for murder — to Macbeth. He was stunned to read words that seemed to belong to him:

I have liv’d long enough. My way of life Is fall'n into the sere, the yellow leaf; And that which should accompany old age, As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends, I must not look to have…

He stopped, looked up, “That was how I felt…right after I shot him…before they came and got me…I felt just like this.” “Want to talk about it?” He did. The magic of character had inspired catharsis for him, face to face with Macbeth, seeing himself through Shakespeare.

In Belfast at the Hydebank Wood youth detention center, I was suddenly in over my head. These young men would try to trip each other during a movement warmup. Everyone started speaking at once, trying to outdo each other, no matter what I did or said. I thought quickly.—there wasn’t much time.

The boys began to work on an improvised “movie” scene about a drug heist. I yelled, “Cut, okay, great scene, now maybe you should choose a different drug, so let's go again and now, which drug are you playing?” One boy suggested a downer. “Okay, that works, totally opposite of what he’s doing, he’s flying and you’re zoned out and barely awake, which will frustrate him.”

They were quite brilliant at this—fully committed and totally into their characters’ circumstances, nonstop overlapping dialogue, true to the situation and cooperating to beat the band. I was relieved that the protagonist of the story was trying to persuade his friends against the robbery. In fact, he surprised them and vehemently swiped all of the invisible drugs off the table. Their movie, playing themselves, making different choices.

We’re just planting seeds. An actor’s rehearsal is all about choices. These inmates have other choices, other personas, other role models to emulate in order to get them through difficult situations. What they need to do is practice. It could be a lifesaving tool.

There are new scenes waiting. New ways to handle old debts. The men from Magilligan and the boys from Hydebank Wood learned that stepping into someone else’s shoes can free them from old habits and destructive reactions. The man serving time for murder found his experience mirrored by Shakespeare, and it helped him understand.

Sometimes all we have to do is make the introduction.

Gary Sloan has performed in New York, Los Angeles, and major regional theatres including Arena Stage, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Huntington Theatre, Alley Theatre, and Long Wharf. He appeared in Robert Prosky’s production of Arthur Miller’s The Price at the English Theatre in Vienna, narrated Defiant Requiem at the Prague Holocaust Era Assets Conference in Terezin, and opened the British Shakespeare Association Conference in Belfast with his solo production of Haunted Prince, A Requiem for Edwin Booth. He has portrayed leading roles in Ibsen, Pinter, Miller, Williams, Hellman and Shaw; contemporary work by Keith Glover, Ken Ludwig, Jacquelyn Reingold and Yasmina Reza; and 22 separate Shakespearean productions. Gary was recently Professor and Head of the MFA Acting program at The Catholic University of America. His acting text, In Rehearsal, was released by Routledge Publishing in 2011.

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